In the quest to become certified organic, you'll need to locate a good organic certification agency - one best suited to your needs.
The first step: Locate an official organic certification agency.
The second step: Narrow down your organic certification agency search.
Certifying agents and agencies vary in many ways. Some are non-profit, some are for profit and some are run by state government agencies while others are independent. That said, all organic certification agencies do certify to the same National Organic Program regulatory standards, or at least they're supposed to. Sometimes the interpretation of the standards can differ, as can paperwork, inspections and various other internal processes from certifier to certifier.
The third step: The interview process.
With the above in mind, once you narrow down your search to a couple of favorite agencies, it's best to interview, or have a discussion with your final candidates, in order to get a feeling for where they stand and how they interpret the final rule. Following are some good questions to ask potential organic certification agencies or certifiers.
- Find out about their fee structure and if they offer financial assistance support. At the very least they should mention, and offer advice about the organic cost share program.
- Are fees flat or are they based on acres of land that needs certified, projected sales, actual sales of organic product, or other issues?
- What other costs will you be responsible for, beyond certification? For example, some states have their own programs that have, in the past, charged for things like chemical residue analysis and other agencies mandate certain training and travel expenses. In some cases the agency picks up these costs. Also ask about any membership fees, certification renewal fees and inspection fees.
- Ask about their experience related to your operation specialty. Also find out what their other specialties are - you never know when you may add new livestock, crops or other value-added products.
- If you're in a super specialty arena, such as you're certifying an organic restaurant or retail establishment, make absolutely sure that the agency offers a clear interpretation of NOP standards as they relate to your business. Food and retail outlets have fewer strict standards in place, so you'll need more help from your agency to understand the criteria and be successful.
- Ask them to explain their application process. Has it changed recently? Will it be changing mid-certification?
- Will you be working with one specific agent or passed around? Can you switch agents within the larger agency if you like?
- Find out if they handle U.S. and foreign sales or just U.S.
- How long will your certification process take?
- How many operations do they support in your area and are those long-term relationships?
- What buyers does the agency work with regularly?
- What sort of technical advice can they offer regarding organic production?
- What benefits does the agency offer? Some have mentoring programs in place, others offer workshops and other educational resources.
- How soon can the agency consider your application? Most organic certification agencies have fairly small staff numbers, and in order to achieve timely certification, you'll need an inspection during the growing season when you're planning to sell. Can this agency handle your schedule? Also note that most agencies have application cut-off dates for inspections, due to seasonal time constraints, for example, spring is busy. Because organic certification isn't retroactive, you'll want an agency who can fit you in when you need them to or you won't be able to sell as organic.
- What sort of forms are available on their website? If they don't have a decent website, how soon is mail turn-around if you need new forms sent to you?
- Ask how the agency helps new certification applicants avoid common newbie mistakes.
During the interview, pay attention to how professional they seem and how quickly the agency or certifier answers your questions. If they can't answer a question right away, do they get back to you quickly? If they seem annoyed with your questions, no matter how small, walk away. You need an agency that respects your support needs. While many applicants do think certification is pretty much common sense, not everyone finds the certification process easy, and that should be considered okay.
The fourth step: After the interview, do a bit more research.
While the agency may say to your face, "Sure, we answer questions quickly," the reality may be different. Pick a couple of questions and email or call the agency to see how said questions are handled. Don't make your questions too easy. Asking about where to get approved inputs is a good one. In fact simply asking if a specific fertilizer or organic seed is approved is a good question. Ask about something that specifically relates to your unique operation.
Did they answer quickly and correctly? Did they seem friendly and helpful when not right in person? These are good things to find out now, before you choose an agency. Just a few simple phone calls or emails can save you trouble down the road.